Haydn and new work provide highlights from Takács Quartet
The Takács Quartet proved that four is divisible by three Friday night in an uneven program at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
In the first two-thirds of the concert, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, the veteran ensemble demonstrated why it ranks among the top string quartets in the world. After a compelling, nuanced performance of Haydn’s Quartet in C major, Op. 74, No. 1, they gave a colorful account of Strong Language, an attractive piece composed for them this year by a gifted young American, Timo Andres.
But things sagged a bit in the last work on the program, Dvořák’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 109, which, though expertly rendered, sounded unimaginative and routine compared to what had gone before.
The first movement of the Haydn set a high standard indeed, with every expressive detail attended to, but never at the expense of long line and momentum. The group was alert to the music’s flickering moods, especially in the volatile development section, and the lively interaction of the four players—Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violins; Geraldine Walther, viola; and András Fejér, cello–was a delight to hear.
Melodious and dancing in a lilting three-to-a-bar, the quartet’s “slow” movement had one thinking of Rossini. Haydn’s way of seamlessly refashioning the string-quartet sonority to suit each musical thought—full or thin, bare octaves or rich chords, tune-with-accompaniment or swarming counterpoint—was satisfyingly on view, without calling undue attention to itself.
Like many Haydn minuets, the third movement had a robust country swing to it, rendered without heaviness on Friday. The trio, though in the same tempo and with a similar theme, had an entirely different feel, sweet and tender, the instruments sounding muted though no mutes were used.
The high-energy finale was no mere dash to the finish, but a marvelous assortment of ideas and sounds ranging from skittering staccato-leggiero to roaring bagpipe drones, rendered with panache and pinpoint ensemble by the Takács players.
Having brought a centuries-old masterpiece to vivid life, the ensemble went on to prove it could bring the same energy and esprit to the latest musical thoughts of today’s younger generation.
Written last spring and premiered by the Takács Quartet in Baltimore on November 15, Strong Language revealed a 30-year-old composer with a fine ear for the string-quartet medium and a witty, engaging musical personality.
Comments from the stage by violinist Dusinberre, perhaps meant to calm the audience’s anxiety at hearing a new work, hardly seemed necessary; in this performance, Andres’s three movements spoke most amusingly for themselves.
The piece’s arresting title, as Dusinberre pointed out, referred “not to what happens in a string quartet rehearsal,” but to the composer’s aspiration to follow Haydn’s and Beethoven’s example and come up with a few musical ideas that are strong enough to carry a work lasting over 20 minutes.
The composer’s penchant for wordplay continued in the first movement, “Middens,” which started where the Haydn work left off, in C major, with a simple tune passing among the instruments, gradually acquiring chromatic baggage until it resembled an atonal junk heap of discarded ideas.
Subtly handled by the quartet, propelled by a steady flow of rocking eighth notes, the movement took on a minimalist flavor at times as it spun on to an enigmatic conclusion.
“Origin Stories” followed, beginning with a “representation of chaos” not unlike the one in Haydn’s The Creation: strange non-vibrato chords hovering and modulating without a tonal center, from which emerged a sort of chaconne theme, “strong” enough to build a series of variations on. At the movement’s conclusion, triad chords modulated modally to a fervent climax in the manner of Roy Harris or William Schuman.
The last movement’s title, “Gentle Cycling,” referred to the music’s character (which was not very flashy for a finale) and to the continuing use of variations, in this case variations-in-reverse. At the beginning, a few plucks and squeaks merely hinted at a theme, but soon a tune resembling the last movement’s chaconne emerged, and after that a tango-like beat swung and swayed in the lower strings while the first violin danced waywardly high above.
At the end, the music floated away, Ives-like, on an unresolved chord. In the silence following, an audience member was heard to say “Nice!” just before the enthusiastic applause began. And indeed, there was something very nice, in the sense of sensitive and appreciative, in the way the Takács players showed off Timo Andres’s gift to them.
All this raised high expectations to hear Dvořák played by an ensemble with Central European roots that had shown its ability to enter imaginatively into whatever piece it plays, be it Austrian or American. But the performance that followed didn’t communicate very much besides the skill and coordination of the players themselves.
Perhaps the ensemble bought into the old image of Dvořák as a tuneful naif, a kind of Grandma Moses among composers, making up in liveliness and local color what he lacked in technique. Hearing his quartet played as it was Friday, with mostly thick textures and relentless drive, one might conclude this composer was a bargain-basement version of his mentor Brahms.
Letting Dvořák be Dvořák would have involved a good deal more freedom of tempo and variety of texture (overcoming a certain sameness the composer was indeed guilty of), and some singing in the “molto cantabile” slow movement.
And in the last movement, a tumble of harmonic quirks and slavonic-dance rhythms, one wished that this group had applied its demonstrated ability to find the long arc of a piece, so that the ever-elaborating Dvořák wouldn’t sound quite so long-winded.
At the end, the applauding audience brought the players back to the stage several times, but—unusually these days—remained mostly seated. Too bad–if ever performers had earned at least the “standard standing o,” it was the Takács Quartet earlier that evening.
The Celebrity Series of Boston presents David Finckel, cello; Wu Han, piano; and David Shifrin, clarinet, 8 p.m., January 15 at NEC’s Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.
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